“Is the ’War on Terror’ a Myth?” and Other Questions

This is an article about questions, not answers.

In the blogosphere, especially, many people shout out very loud, confident answers, explanations, conspiracy theories, and of course, name-calling tirades. Some of these blustery monologues could be improved just by starting with the right questions – and by admitting that we don’t necessarily have the answers.

In America as a whole, the culture of conformity rules. Entirely too many people prefer to eat at the same chain restaurants, wear the same brands of clothing, have the same opinions about the same movies and television shows, and most insidiously of all, either ignore politics and world affairs altogether, or else follow the group-think political inclinations and worldview dictated by their chosen tribe – roughly and broadly, either the Red State Club or the Blue State Club. It’s the duty of citizens in a democracy to be skeptical both of those currently in power and those who would like to take their places. And skeptical citizens should be asking questions.

I have a few.

Is the “War on Terror” really a war, or is it an advertising slogan? Is it necessary? Is it making us safer or less safe? How can we tell? Whose word can we trust?

Was military action the best and only possible response to 9/11? Or did we blow an important opportunity to win hearts and minds? Did our hunger for “justice” (i.e., vengeance) blind us to the long-term consequences of our actions?

Why was so much of the world sympathetic to us, “on our side” in the weeks immediately after 9/11, and why does so much of the world now, in Europe as well as the Middle East, think of us as the Big Bully on the Block? Are they right? Do we care what they think? If not, why not? What will be the consequences of years or decades in which most of the countries of the world see us as a club-wielding empire?

If most of the potential terrorists in the world are angry young Muslim men, taught to see the US as the Great Satan and the killer of children and the friend of autocratic Arab regimes, shouldn’t we try to change their minds, demonstrate that they’re wrong? Why instead do we bomb first and ask questions later, keep hundreds in detention for years without charges, maintain our largely uncritical “friendships” with the oppressive governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, prefer threats to diplomacy – in short, why do we go out of our way to prove to these young men that we are exactly as awful as they have been taught we are?

Do terrorist bombings in Madrid, London, Bali and elsewhere confirm the existence of a sinister network of terror? Or were they the work of separate groups of extremists inspired by similar ideas? Is the distinction worth making? Is Al Qaeda an actual group with members, or is it the “brand name” of a style and strategy of anti-Western violence? If in fact we are facing separate groups of extremists, not a global network, what does that tell us about how we should be facing this threat? Have our efforts to date accomplished anything? Have they inspired new extremists and thus led to new danger?

If, as some have said, our post-9/11 stance has been based in part on that of Israel, a state that has faced Arab terrorism for decades, do we have lessons to learn from the Palestinian conflict that we haven’t heeded? Does following a policy of always striking back after each and every attack in fact give the terrorists what they want – an escalation of conflict and another step away from any possible peace or resolution? Are there similar lessons from other “intractable” tribal conflicts, as in Northern Ireland and the Baltics, where extremists on either side who don’t want peace only have to blow something up to derail any ongoing negotiations?

Does the fact that there has not yet been another 9/11-scale attack, or even a smaller one, inside the US, mean that the Bush policies are working? Or does it mean that the actual threat has been poorly understood and described – or in fact deliberately distorted?

If we are facing an imminent threat of more massive violence here at home, why have so many of the “plots” uncovered in the US since 9/11 (e.g., in Lackawanna and Detroit) been so puny or in many cases actually nonexistent? Why have so many of the “dangerous terrorists” (“These are really bad guys,” we were reassured by Donald Rumsfeld) held at Guantanamo been released? Why have so few of the rest been charged? Did we possibly overreact and arrest a lot of innocent people? Is this something we should be proud of?

Why have we spent trillions on an air travel security system that many experts warn provides only an illusion of safety? Why do we have laws like the US Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act (and non-laws like warrantless wiretapping of US citizens) that seem to contradict our own ideals as expressed in our Constitution, as well as international ideals as expressed in the Geneva Conventions? Have these documents become irrelevant in a more dangerous modern world? What other bits of our democratic heritage are now dispensable?

Why are we in Iraq? Why did we go to begin with? Why were so many of us so gung-ho to go originally, and why are so many of us now in such a hurry to leave? Did we ever really know what was going on there before the invasion, or what the potential consequences of invading a country and dismantling a government could be? Was Saddam a genuine threat, or just a gigantic pain in the ass? Which would have caused more death and suffering: allowing him to remain in power as a mass-murdering thug, or deposing him and setting in motion the murderous conflicts (featuring new casts of mass-murdering thugs) going on in Iraq now? Was he in league with terrorists? Who says so? Is there proof? If not, what have we done?

Why is Afghanistan no closer to genuine democracy or stability now (beyond Kabul and a small perimeter around it) than it was five years ago? Does the US government give a damn?

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, what will be the ultimate consequences of wiping out the sitting authoritarian governments, replacing them with nominally democratic but very weak regimes – and then turning our attention elsewhere? Have we set up big disasters to follow in the near future?

Did the brilliant BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis get it right in The Power of Nightmares, a movie so radioactive no film or TV company in the US will touch it? Was he correct in describing 9/11 as the last desperate act of a small, failed group of Islamists – an act that did more than they could have imagined to revive both radical Islam and American neoconservatism, which was also at a dead end in 1999-2001? Is it possibly true, as Curtis asserts, that governments and politicians, striving to maintain their power in the post-Great Society, post-Cold War world, have latched on to the War on Terror as their means of survival? Have they taken advantage of the fear and lack of knowledge among ordinary people to say, “Don’t worry – this stuff is too complicated and frightening for you to understand or for us to even reveal it to you – but we’ll protect you…just keep voting for us”? Does the Republican rhetoric of the last two elections (“A vote for the Democrats is a vote to let the terrorists win”) back up this assertion? Do the Democrats offer any kind of viable alternative, or just a craven me-too-ism?

Is anyone telling us the truth? Are we interested in pressing the point until they do?

I’m just asking.

Handyguy (aka Randall Byrn) is a marketing director at a business magazine’s conference division in New York. A transplanted Southerner, he has been a movie buff since birth. He’s always secretly wanted to be Pauline Kael, and blogcritics gives him an approximation of that, or so he likes to fantasize at least. Handy has a film degree from USC.